It is time to look at another great British american football team: The Leicester Panthers
Following on from our recent look at the London Ravens the Birmingham Bulls and the London Olympians this is the fourth in a short series of articles looking at teams that have impacted the domestic landscape.
Like the London Ravens we started out with, the Panthers are no longer an active team. Having played from 1985 they abruptly disbanded in 1996.
The Panthers always seemed to be competitive. They went an enviable 81-34-1 all time.
With that success they only once failed to be .500 or above (in 1989). That was the only season they ever failed to make the playoffs.
The ‘nearly’ team
From their inception the Leicester Panthers were competitive. Their first ever regular season saw them go 10-0 before falling to the Ravens 40-14 in the playoffs at the semi-final stage.
The following year they went 9-3 before falling again at the semi-final stage. This time they were downed 27-15 away to the Glasgow Lions.
Even falling at the semi-final twice in a row the Panthers were establishing themselves as a team to be reckoned with.
It was déjà vu for the Panthers and their fans in 1987 as once again they were upended in the semi-final. Following a 9-1 regular season this time they went down 42-16 to the Manchester Allstars.
In 1988, they went 8-5-1 and lost to the London Olympians 27-17 in the quarter-finals. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about this season was that the Panthers were quarterbacked by New Orleans Saints Head Coach Sean Payton at this time.
All in all over their first four years they were 36-9-1 but always fell in the playoffs. They really were the ‘nearly’ team of early Britball.
Knocking on the door
In 1989 the panthers went 4-6 and had their one and only playoff free season. That was followed by coaching changes and a new experience for the team.
The 1992 season saw the Panthers make it to the championship match. After years of frustration they were able to beat their midlands rivals the Birmingham Bulls 21-9 in the semi-final.
Unfortunately for Leicester they ran into a dominant London Olympians squad in the final. The O’s 34-6 win was their first of many championships as they went on to dominate the domestic scene.
Between 1993 and 1995 the Panthers would make the playoffs every year only to be beaten in the semi-final game. Their old rivals the Glasgow Lions, and the Birmingham Bulls (twice) proving to be too great a roadblock in their quest for a championship.
1996 and all that
In 1996 it finally happened! The Panthers went 9-1 in the regular season and this time did not slip up in the playoffs.
The Panthers faced another unexpected finalist that year in the Milton Keynes Pioneers.
A tough defence dominated championship match saw the Panthers take home the title on the back of a 10-6 win.
For many teams that may have signalled the opening of a floodgate. The Panthers had got ‘over the hump’ and could have gone on to be a dominant force.
Instead the Panthers folded and that was that until 2007 when it wasn’t!
The Matt Hampson Bowl
In November 2006 former Panthers players came up with an idea. Why not get back together and play a game?
From that idea came a challenge match against local university team, The Loughborough Aces.
That game was the ‘Matt Hampson Bowl’ played at the Leicester Tigers‘ rugby union team’s ground.
Hampson was an England under 21 rugby international, who suffered a neck injury in 2005 whilst taking part in a scrum practice.
He had established the Matt Hampson Charitable Trust. Designed to raise money for those who had suffered severe sports injuries.
It can’t have hurt the organisers of the event that Leicester Tigers great and England rugby legend Martyn Johnson had been a former Panthers junior and senior player!
The re-formed Panthers, including Johnson, won 20-3 and raised nearly £50,000. This really was the last hurrah for the Panthers who have not been seen since.
Alternative american football in Leicester
Even with the Panthers gone Leicester has had senior kitted football to enjoy.
The Leicester Huntsmen ran from 1987 to 1998 but were never as strong as the Panthers finishing 56-67-2 overall. When the Panthers folded Britball fans in Leicester did have the Huntsmen to turn to for a further 2 seasons.
The Leicester Eagles flag football team ran from 1997 to 2004 and were born out of the Panthers supporters club.
Since 2006 the Leicester Falcons have been the resident senior kitted team. They came to be following the “huge popularity of flag football” in the region and a desire to see senior football back in the city.
The Falcons own an all-time regular season record of 72-33-4 as well as being 12-4 all-time in the playoffs.
They had their most successful season ever in 2018 and are now in the top tier of British football. A place those with memories of 80’s Britball will find familiar for a team from Leicester.
Banner image: Panthers at the line of scrimmage in the Matt Hampson Bowl from Football America UK